Supermarket flowers come with hidden environmental costs and unwanted packaging - and there's a reason you need that sachet of sugar to revive them after all that processing!
If you're saying 'it' with flowers this UK Bank Holiday weekend make sure they're locally grown
26th August, 2016
A gap in the market and the digital age has seen the British organic cut flower industry flourish over the last couple of years - with chemical-free, low air-mile blooms finally seeing their day in the sun. LAURA BRIGGS reports on the homegrown market that offers a bigger variety of flowers and without the environmental costs of imported ones
The UK is the third largest consumer for cut blooms, pipped only by the USA and Germany
Globally the cut flower business is worth $100 billion a year, and according to fairtrade.org the main producers are the Netherlands, accounting for 55%, Columbia 18%, Ecuador 9% and Kenya 6%. The UK is the third largest consumer for cut blooms, pipped only by the USA and Germany.
Largely grown in glasshouses, 70% of the world's flowers arrive via the Netherlands in one of three enormous flower "markets" - take for example the one million metre-squared Aalsmeer flower auction - which has the largest footprint of a building in the world, equating to 128 acres.
But travelling takes its toll on flowers. Not only do they require an enormous amount of energy to be cooled to 2 degrees, and put in a sleep-like trance, they are then sprayed with fungicide, x-rayed, put on a plane, and dipped in silver nitrate where they are mummified and lose all their scent, requiring the consumer to add a sachet of "life-giving" sugar solution to already four-day-old blooms.
Buying locally means that you are ensured a longer shelf life from your flowers, and your bouquet will remain smelling fragrant. It also means you get more choice as many delicate flowers such as sweet peas can't cope with this process.
Claire Brown, owner of Surry flower farm Plant Passion, and volunteer at Gill Hodgson's initiative Flowers From the Farm, grows more than 250 varieties for three main markets; local customers, florists and "DIY brides", who buy the flowers and then create their own bouquets and displays.
With a background in horticulture, Claire seized an opportunity when she saw a gap in the market four years ago: "There has been huge growth in the industry. Before local growers started up there just hadn't been a place for florists to buy their flowers.
"There were larger growers back in the 1970S but they would grow just one variety of flower. Because they grew such a vast amount, they had to go to market and to the wholesalers and it was very price dependent. When fuel prices went up it put them out of business.
"Fast forward 50 years and we have the Internet, SO we can go directly to the customer and there is such a good local market for this. There hasn't been that ability to do that before."
Flowers From the Farm now has more than 300 small flower growing businesses as members of a steadily growing community, and it's a supportive one at that. Claire said: "Because all the flowers are grown locally to the area they are being sold in, you don't have a high level of competition, in fact it would be handy to have more growers in the area to cover the demand but I have seen a couple come and go because actually it's a very skilled job. It's a hard physical job."
With Claire's flowers you know you are getting them at their very best. "I pick my flowers at 6am and they go in a dark barn. They are bought by my clients that afternoon. I don't need to use chemicals or extra sugar food, and I've already got four days ahead of the supermarkets."
Growing flowers in the British countryside sounds pretty idyllic but the rose-tinted idea of a flower grower's life being easy is far removed from reality. Jan Waters from JW Blooms in Somerset works 80 hours a week with one other grower to grow, pick and create all the floristry for weddings and provide postal bouquets - she even runs a coffee shop that opens on Sundays.
With a gardening background Jan was inspired to get into growing in 2008 after she picked all the cornflowers from her allotment and saw the delighted reaction from people as she cycled home with them on her bike. "I realised I could sell them, and then I read about Jane Lindsey who started growing cut flowers on her smallholding in Scotland and thought, ‘if she can do it, so can I.'"
When she first set up Jan said she knew of about half a dozen other growers doing the same thing, but now there are huge numbers and it's rising. "Sarah Raven was hugely influential and gave people the idea they could do this themselves. Over the past four years the industry has really grown. Gill Hodgson made a huge difference with Flowers From the Farm as well."
There are some key differences to organically grown and glasshouse flowers, and the main one is the variety available to the buyer. Jan said: "The range of flowers I can offer is far greater as I can include flowers that can't survive the packing process like lilies, roses or tulips can.
"We have just over an acre and in dahlias alone we have more than 40 different varieties.
They also smell amazing, whereas flowers that have been dipped have no fragrance. I don't use chemicals, the only things I use to spray the flowers are garlic, chili, and sometimes a seaweed spray, so nothing that I wouldn't eat myself. I dread to think of the chemicals that are sprayed on many of our imported flowers."
Jan also shares a concern with many discerning consumers about the issue of waste packaging. Flowers that come into the supermarket are wrapped in cellophane, just one more thing that goes into land fill. "I don't use packaging, and I don't use the florists' oasis bricks which are bad for the environment as well as they don't biodegrade."
British flower growers are reliant on the seasons, so the choice is more limited come Christmas and the winter months, however there are growers across the world who are appealing to the British taste for flowers year-round who do use organic and ethical methods of growing.
Rosabie Morton of The Real Flower Company helped to set up the Fairtrade rose farm in Nanyuki, Kenya, where roses are grown year-round, employs 500 local workers and utilises the empty space on scheduled passenger jets to carry their flowers, rather than cargo-only flights.
There will always be a place for year-round flowers, but British organic flower growers are offering a wider choice for the consumer and perhaps when you buy your blooms out of season, you'll think more about what it took to produce them.
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